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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Jan 24;103(4):1088-93. Epub 2006 Jan 17.

Early auditory experience generates long-lasting memories that may subserve vocal learning in songbirds.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA.


In both humans and songbirds, infants learn vocalizations by imitating the sounds of adult tutors with whom they interact during an early sensitive period. Vocal learning occurs in few animal taxa; similarities in the imitation process between humans and songbirds make the songbird a unique system in which vocal learning mechanisms can be studied at the neurobiological level. One theory of vocal learning proposes that early auditory experience generates auditory memories that subsequently guide vocal imitation. We now present a combination of behavioral and neurophysiological results, obtained in a songbird, that support this theory. We show that neurons in a forebrain auditory area of adult male zebra finches are selectively tuned to the song of a tutor heard early in development. Furthermore, the strength of this selectivity shows a striking correlation with the fidelity of vocal imitation, suggesting that this auditory memory may have served as the model for song learning.

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